WHO releases global guidelines for digital health

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Following two years of systematic global review, the World Health organization (WHO) has produced 10 recommendations on some key ways digital technologies may be for maximum impact on health systems and people’s health.

In a document listing guidelines released April 17th, 2019 WHO indicates these recommendations point towards ways in which countries can use digital health technology, accessible via mobile phones, tablets, and computers, to improve people’s health and essential services.

“Harnessing the power of digital technologies is essential for achieving universal health coverage,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who added that, “Ultimately, digital technologies are not ends in themselves; they are vital tools to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.”

The guidelines demonstrate that health systems need to respond to the increased visibility and availability of information. People also must be assured that their own data is safe and that they are not being put at risk because they have accessed information on sensitive health topics, such as sexual and reproductive health issues.

The guidelines represent the first of many explorations into the use of digital technologies and have only covered a fraction of the many aspects of digital health, according to the release published on WHO website.

Health workers need adequate training to boost their motivation to transition to this new way of working and need to use the technology easily. The guidelines stress the importance of providing supportive environments for training, dealing with unstable infrastructure, as well as policies to protect privacy of individuals, and governance and coordination to ensure these tools are not fragmented across the health system.

The guidelines encourage policy-makers and implementers to review and adapt to these conditions if they want digital tools to drive tangible changes and provides guidance on taking privacy considerations on access to patient data.

WHO says one digital intervention already having positive effects in some areas is sending reminders to pregnant women to attend antenatal care appointments and having children return for vaccinations. Other digital approaches reviewed include decision-support tools to guide health workers as they provide care; and enabling individuals and health workers to communicate and consult on health issues from across different locations.

Bernardo Mariano, WHO’s Chief Information Officer however, cautioned that, “Digital health is not a silver bullet. WHO is working to make sure it’s used as effectively as possible. This means ensuring that it adds value to the health workers and individuals using these technologies, takes into account the infrastructural limitations, and that there is proper coordination.”

The guidelines also hinted on telemedicine, which allows people living in remote locations to obtain health services by using mobile phones, web portals, or other digital tools. ‘WHO points out that this is a valuable complement to face-to-face-interactions, but it cannot replace them entirely. It is also important that consultations are conducted by qualified health workers and that the privacy of individuals’ health information is maintained,’ the report said.

To support governments in monitoring and coordination of digital investments in their country, WHO has developed the Digital Health Atlas, an online global repository where implementers can register their digital health activities. WHO has also established innovative partnerships with the ITU, such as the BeHe@lthy, BeMobile initiative for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases, as well as efforts for building digital health capacity through the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

WHO currently boasts of having released several resources to strengthen digital health research and implementation, including the mHealth Assessment and Planning for Scale (MAPS) toolkit, a handbook for Monitoring and Evaluation of Digital Health, and mechanisms to harness digital health to end TB.